January 11, 2004

African American Concert Singers Before 1950 by Darryl Glenn Nettles.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2003.  185pp (softcover).  Illustrations, Discography, Index.  ISBN 0-7864-1467-7. $39.95 ($43.95 postpaid from publisher).

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

Having just written a book about the earliest African American recording artists, several of whom were concert singers, I was curious to see what this new book might add to our store of knowledge about these pioneers, as well as those who did not record.  Whether you come to the book already familiar with the field, or simply someone curious about names you may have heard, African American Concert Singers Before 1950 is a decidedly mixed bag, with both strengths and glaring weaknesses.

First the strengths.  The book is a collection of short (one to two page) biographical sketches of about 80 artists who were active from the 1800s to 1950.  The obvious stars are here–Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price (who just makes the cut, having begun her career around 1950)–but so are many obscure names such as Florence Cole Talbert and Edward Boatner.  Nineteenth century pioneers including Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (“The Black Swan”), Mme. Sissieretta Jones (“Black Patti”) and the Hyers Sisters are acknowledged alongside more recent performers.  Carol Brice, a contralto active from the 1940s to the 1960s, graces the cover.  The coverage is wide ranging, including a few, like Inez Clough, who were arguably better known for their theatrical than their concert work.  (Actually, practically everyone from the 1930s-on seems to have appeared in a production of Porgy and Bess at some point.)  Roughly a quarter of the entries are accompanied by a picture of the subject.

The brief biographical entries have two distinctive features.  Many are prefaced by reminiscences about the artist by William Warfield, the author’s voice teacher, friend, and a noted baritone in his own right.  In addition to his concert career, Warfield is remembered for performances on stage and in film (e.g. “Ol’ Man River” in the 1951 film version of Show Boat).  His warm and often insightful comments and anecdotes about performers he knew over the years, both headliners and also-rans, add a personal touch to the book from this late, great artist (Warfield died in 2002).

The other unusual feature is the inclusion of verbatim transcripts of period newspaper items about the subjects following many of the biographies.  These include reviews (not always favorable!) and obituaries and are drawn from the New York Age, Indianapolis Freeman, New York Amsterdam News and other black newspapers.  In some cases the clippings are quite extensive.  Harry T. Burleigh, the famous baritone and composer/arranger, gets ten pages of contemporary commentary on his work, dating from 1912 to 1947.  Sissieretta Jones has 14 pages of press reports from the 1880s and 1890s.  These articles are a nice way to see how the artist was perceived in his or her own time.

Unfortunately the biographies are less satisfying.  The author, a voice teacher at Tennessee State University, might be expected to bring a unique perspective.  However some of these bios are so superficial as to provide hardly any information all, not even indicating the period in which the subject was active.  Many seem to have been paraphrased directly from Eileen Southern’s landmark Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians (1982).  Each is followed by a list of sources (a good thing), but the same handful of sources appear repeatedly: Southern’s Biographical Dictionary, Maude Cuney-Hare’s classic Negro Musicians and Their Music (1936) and The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (1986).  Although the author must have hit the microfilms to exhume the newspaper items previously mentioned, very little original research is apparent in these biographies; they seemed to be based on, or in some cases lifted bodily from, a handful of other books.

The limited number of sources is evident in other ways.  Any source list on Roland Hayes should as a minimum include his biography, Angel Mo’ and Her Son Roland Hayes (1942), the basic first-person account of his career.  Other important references not mentioned include the recent E. Azalia Hackley biography, the excellent dissertation on Harry T. Burleigh by Jean Snyder, or any of the many books on Paul Robeson.  Even if not all possible sources could be listed, the author should at least point out those that are most important.

Fortunately the sources used were good ones, so although there is little original there are also few errors.  The widespread copying of material written years earlier does perpetuate a few.  For example the author repeats Southern’s claim that Anita Patti Brown made records for Victor in 1916 and Black Swan in 1920.  The 1916 recording was a test, which was unissued, and the 1920 was actually a Columbia personal recording.

There is little mention of recordings in the biographies, even for prolific recording artists such as Robeson or Anderson.  A five page discography at the end of the book is a list of releases rather than a full discography, and is an odd mix of early 78s and mid-century LPs.  The early citations seem to have been cribbed from Patricia Turner’s pioneering but unfortunately flawed Dictionary of Afro-American Performers (1990), the first attempt at a discography of pre-1950 black concert artists.  So we have missing issues, incorrect dates, garbled catalog and matrix numbers (unidentified as such) and so on.  Incredible rarities such as Harry T. Burleigh’s sole recording (for Broome, in 1919) sit side by side with common LP’s from the 1950s.  (You probably won’t even find Burleigh, since his artist heading is missing and his two releases are listed under Anne Wiggins Brown.)  The author seems to have done more original work on the LP entries.  Only 15 of the book’s 80 artists are listed in the discography, a fraction of those who recorded, and there are no entries at all for such major names as Anderson, Hayes or Robeson.  There is, however, a lengthy listing for William Warfield!

In sum, although African American Concert Singers Before 1950 does have some interesting features (the Warfield commentaries, the period news clippings), it is a cursory survey at best and will be a disappointment to those seriously interested in the field.  Better to get copies of Southern, Cuney-Hare and Grove.  That’s where the real research is.


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